It takes spirit gum, a patch of wiry fake hair and some creative weaving, brushing and spraying to put together that “elaborate” combover that crowns Irving Rosenfeld’s entire appearance — and the entire process is detailed in just the opening moments of American Hustle, a film about survival, ambition and staying true to yourself while being fake with everyone else.
The folically challenged Irving (Christian Bale) is savvy in every other field. He not only owns multiple dry cleaners, a plate glass company and not-so-legit art gallery, but also runs a lucrative scam business that guarantees desperate customers large loans for a modest fee of $5,000. After trickster Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) gets involved and FBI agent Richie DiMasso (Bradley Cooper) learns the game they’re playing, the two con artists have the option of going to jail or helping entrap government officials, including New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), into taking bribes. As the opening title card suggests, “some of this actually happened,” as the film is based on the Abscam stings executed in the 1970s.
The time period is front and center in the film, which acts more like a love letter from director David O. Russell to the 1970s than a history lesson. From the soundtrack, which keeps the Elton John, Tom Jones and ELO hits coming, to the both stunning and comical costume design, every nuance of the film sends viewers back to the days of battleship-length cars, disco dancing and an Atlantic City-free New Jersey. The latter is critical to the story, as part of how DiMasso’s plan revolves around Polito’s plans to bring jobs and tourism to his state by building casinos on the Jersey shore. He’ll validate his dream if it takes anything, including bribing and using mob bosses, foreign millionaires and other politicians.
Using people and being used is the modus operandi for almost every character in American Hustle. Polito does it to better his community, but the others all do it to realize their own ambitions. Richie tries to win Sydney over by telling her he likes her after keeping her locked in a holding cell for three days. Then she turns the tables, telling Irving that she’ll “be very convincing” in seducing Richie so they can have a backup plan in case the FBI has successfully conned them. Irving’s wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who’s the “Picasso of passive aggressive karate,” uses him to pay for a lifestyle of sun lamps and Swiss nail polish. Despite his job, Irving avoids using those he’s directly involved with until he has to in order to survive.
And that need to survive is what drives all the characters. With multiple narrations from the three principals, audiences get a feeling for the desperation underneath the plunging necklines and velvet suits. Irving wants to get the charges dropped so he can return to the neatly compartmentalized life he had with his wife, adopted son and mistress. Sydney wants the charges dropped so she can get Irving to leave the country with her. And Richie wants to be the one with more exciting things to do than live with his mother, ignore his fiancee and curl his hair. These motives are the truest things about a set of characters who fake everything else.
They also make the characters humanistic, an important aspect to include when telling a story that involves a group of hustling criminals and overly ambitious lawmen. Rosalyn discusses how fine perfumes often have something disgusting in them — in fact, the top coat she uses smells so good, “kind of perfume-y, but there’s also something rotten,” and how her husband “can’t get enough.” If that doesn’t scream “Motif!” you’re not paying good enough attention. Every character is “sweet and sour, rotten and delicious” — Polito and Richie’s aromatic plans to better the country but stinky methods of getting there, Sydney’s beautiful exterior and self-serving attitude and Irving’s warm intentions for his son but jealousy toward Sydney and Richie’s relationship (no matter how fake it might actually be).
The dichotomy of each player requires a lot from its cast, and that’s where Russell’s pantheon of actors comes in handy. Drawing from his last two films, The Fighter (2011) and Silver Linings Playbook (2012), the director has assembled and ensemble that dazzles and intrigues. Bale, who won an Oscar for his role in The Fighter, returns with a performance that makes him the heavy-set, balding con artist rather than “the guy who played Batman as a heavy-set balding con artist.” Cooper’s portrayal of Richie is just as good, and Renner’s well-meaning mayor has small scenes but important ones. Louis C.K.‘s portrayal of DiMasso’s boss is a highlight, as he’s the only character not swept away by the insanity of Abscam. The men of American Hustle aren’t the best part, however. That accolade goes to their women.
Lawrence has already won a Golden Globe for the movie, and most likely will win a second consecutive Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. As Rosalyn, she acts beyond her age. Her character on the outside is a time bomb ready to blow up all of Irving’s plans, but in smaller moments we see that she’s really a struggling mother trying to become more intelligent by citing articles and worldly by using foreign beauty projects. Her best moment? After being told off by her husband, she goes home to blast Wings’ “Live and Let Die” as she angrily scrubs the house clean. It’s a brief but humanizing moment that makes audiences ask, “How many times have I done that?”
The standout performance, however, is that of Amy Adams as the puppet master of the whole plot. Irving may think he’s in charge, but she’s the one weighing their options and planning ahead. Even in her darkest moments — accompanied by imperfect makeup and loose curlers — she is a paragon of the era and her profession. Put her and Lawrence in a bathroom together, and you get the most intense scene in a film charged with suspense and espionage.
The plot drags a while, with portions devoted to character development rather than moving the story forward. Although this contributes to the literary importance of the film, it can also make the back-and-forth of Sydney’s relationships, Richie and Irving’s verbal sparring and misadventures of Rosalyn (including setting a microwave “science oven” on fire) tedious. But despite these shortcomings, the movie is still good. As a twisty film about con men, American Hustle had many great examples before it, namely 1973’s The Sting. With similar plot twists and character roles, Russell’s film is as close as any recent film has gotten to echoing the Paul Newman and Robert Redford classic, and that makes it a must-see and must-see-again.
The Verdict: American Hustle is not the greatest film of the year, but it is an enjoyable one with plenty of great performances, laughs, nail-biting moments and vintage attitude. Like all the characters it involves, its attractive outset has a variety of English paper-worthy motifs at its core.